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Carbon-based transistors look to boost China's chip industry

Xinhua | Updated: 2017-07-11 14:51

BEIJING — At a time when modern life is increasingly dependent on electronic devices, their key parts, chips, are nearing their performance limit.

It is widely agreed that one option to tackle the problem is to replace silicon with carbon nanotubes to make transistors in chips. A group of Chinese researchers has made a breakthrough in the field, offering hope for China's chip industry.

In January, a study led by Peng Lianmao, a professor with Peking University, was published in Science Magazine - researchers in Peng's team successfully developed high-performance carbon nanotube transistors proven to be able to perform better than silicon-based semiconductor transistors at the same scale.

For a long time, the semiconductor industry has been dependent on Moore's Law to improve performance, which states that the number of transistors per square inch on a microchip doubles every year.

Many believe that Moore's Law will break down by 2020 when there will be no room for transistor numbers to further increase.

Besides Peng's team, researchers at IBM company and Stanford University have also been developing carbon nanotube transistors.

"Carbon nanotube-based devices can operate much faster at a much lower voltage compared with the traditional silicon-based ones," Peng said.

He said that low power consumption means smart phones in the future made with carbon-based chips could have a much longer battery life, and their front cameras may have the same pixel as the back cameras.

What's more, carbon nanotube transistors can be used to produce flexible and sensitive tiny medical sensors to test data such as blood pressure, heart beat and blood sugar in humans, due to the high flexibility and sensitivity of carbon materials.

Peng believes that the technological breakthrough may be able to lead the way for China's semiconductor industry to surge ahead.

Although China is the top semiconductor consumer in the world, over 70 percent of its chips depend on imports. The Chinese mainland spent $230.7 billion importing chips in 2015, which is 1.7 times that spent on crude oil.

As Moore's Law is nearing its end, there is a big chance for China to lead the world in future semiconductor industry with research on carbon nanotube transistors, according to Peng.

"However, it is not easy for any scientific outcomes to be industrialized, as there is always a huge gap between the laboratory and factory," Peng said.

Besides scientific devotion, government support and company cooperation are indispensable.

In June 2014, China published a development outline for the integrate circuit industry in which the industry was defined as a strategic, basic and pilot industry, key to economic and social development and national security.

In September 2014, a national foundation for the integrate circuit industry was launched with a first issuing of 120 billion yuan ($17.6 billion).

The country's "Made in China 2025" plan vows that China's self-sufficiency in chips will reach 40 percent in 2020, and 50 percent in 2025.

"Compared with fancy scientific applications, it is more important to invest in basic scientific fields such as the chips, since it plays an essential role for the development of a country's scientific competence," Peng said.

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